Maker's Mark COO Rob Samuels talks history and Maker's 46

If you look at a bottle of Maker's Mark bourbon, you'll note that the company spells the word "whisky" without the "e."

That's a tribute to the history that the Samuels family, who founded Maker's in the 1950s, has with distilling. Rob Samuels says his ancestors were making Scotch in Scotland in the 1500s, and they passed on the craft to family members who would eventually immigrate to the United States and partake in the Whisky Rebellion before moving to Bourbon County of what was then Virginia, taking up the governor on his offer of a 1,000-acre land grant for anyone who'd come and farm it.

"In those days, a still was basically farm equipment," says Samuels, who is now the COO of Maker's Mark. "Everyone was making equally bad whiskey."

Bourbon County eventually became Kentucky and, like many of their neighbors, the Samuels family opened a distillery -- T.W. Samuels Co., in their case. Those early companies were integral in refining the style of bourbon which, by definition, is made with at least 51 percent corn and aged in charred oak barrels for at least two years. Both corn and oak, explains Samuels, are native to the area.

When Samuels's grandfather, Bill Samuels Sr., took over the family business, he wanted to get out of distilling. So he sold T.W. Samuels Co. and tried to open a bank. It failed within sixty days. He had similar luck as an automotive salesman. Finally, with the coaxing of his wife, he went back into the bourbon business, this time determined to make something he was proud of, something that was more than just swill. He wanted to bring together bourbon and great taste.

He stepped back and examined every step of the process, and he realized he wanted to get rid of the bitterness that characterized bourbon during that period. "He wanted you to taste the bourbon in the front of your palate, where you perceive sweetness," Samuels explains. After experimenting with bread-baking, Bill realized that he'd be able to do so by using wheat as a flavoring agent instead of rye in his blend. He also got all of his water from a spring-fed lake and slowed down production from the average 250 barrels per batch to 19 barrels per batch, so that he could monitor quality more closely.

In 1953, he officially founded Maker's Mark, which his wife named for the mark that pewter-makers stamped into their handcrafted pieces. Each bottle of bourbon would be hand- labeled and hand-sealed with red wax and, like pewter, be a unique piece of craftsmanship.

The first bottle of Maker's didn't hit the shelf until 1959 -- the bourbon undergoes a six to seven-and-a-half year aging process that ends when a Maker's taster deems it ready. Since then, the company has grown to one million cases of bourbon a year without sacrificing any of the small-batch, hand-crafting elements.

In fact, as we were tasting bourbon together, Samuels could tell who had hand-dipped that particular bottle in red sealing wax because of the way the drips fell. "They've all got their own quirks," he explains. "My grandfather was really the founder of premium bourbon. I see myself as a guardian of that."

Until last year, Maker's was also one of the only distillers in the world that sold a single product. With the focus on quality, it took the company nearly fifty years to consider rolling out a second brand. "It came out of the distillery. We started saying, 'If we did something new, what would it taste like?' This wasn't a marketing effort," explains Samuels.

Maker's decided it wanted to make a more robust whisky that incorporated some spice while keeping the characteristic front-palate sweetness and keeping out the bitterness. And then the company started tinkering around.

"We set the bar really high," says Samuels. "We had a lot of failures." Forty-five, to be exact, which is how the new line, Maker's 46, got its name -- it was project number 46. To craft it, Maker's worked with its barrel-maker, Brad Boswell, who seared some barrels instead of charring them. The distiller then moved bourbon that had finished aging in the regular Maker's Mark process into those barrels -- which released a unique spicy character while deepening the product.

Maker's 46 isn't just a one-off, either. "It's part of the family now," says Samuels. "Similar to the original Maker's Mark, but totally distinct. Like a brother and a sister." And there won't be, say, a Maker's 47 hitting the pipeline anytime soon.

"This is just the beginning for Maker's 46," Samuels explains.

Maker's 46 has been on the market for a year, and it's just beginning to creep into Denver. Samuels says you can try it (with maybe just a little bit of water to open it up) at a number of liquor stores and restaurants; it's definitely on the list at Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk